Where there’s smoke there must be fire, but nobody has to remind New Yorkers about that. Our friends in Canada already have.
The weather on June 7 was quite pleasant for this time of year, but all those who went outside to enjoy it received a nasty jolt. Heavy smoke from fires in Quebec were blown hundreds of miles to New York and other areas.
The smoke was so thick that it blocked the sun and created a strange yellow color in the sky. Much worse, it sickened countless people.
According to the website City Prepping, wildfire smoke is a mixture of various types of gas, particles, and water vapor that contain multiple tiny pollutants; these can enter the lungs and be absorbed into the blood stream. “They have been proven to cause more inflammation and toxic build-up in the lungs than typical smoke,” it reports.
Nausea, headaches, coughing, and breathing problems were among the common symptoms people experienced. Prolonged exposure to this smoke may cause more serious health issues.
New Yorkers who were able to canceled their outdoor activities, and so did some schools and businesses. Many people who took even one whiff of that air turned around quickly and stayed indoors.
One way of measuring the risk wildfire smoke poses is the Air Quality Index (AQI), which is updated daily. The AQI measures how clear or polluted the air is and the health effects people may experience by inhaling that air for a few hours or a few days. An AQI level of 0-50 is considered good; a reading of 51-100 is moderate. At the height of the crisis in New York the reading reached 405, the worst ever recorded here.
In total, 90 million Americans were impacted by smoke from the fires in Canada, and air quality alerts were issued in 20 states.
The question now is whether these fires were just an anomaly that will quickly pass or a sign of what’s to come?
When relief finally does arrive, it won’t be a minute too soon, as at least 10 million acres in Canada have burned and 120,00 people were forced from their homes. By mid-June, 413 fires there were still burning, 249 of them out of control.
A Growing Problem
The damage caused by wildfires in the US is getting steadily worse. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “the extent of areas burned each year has been increasing since the 1980s.”
Many wildfires occur out west because the prolonged and intense drought there has created ideal conditions for them to erupt and to then spread.
But other factors also cause them. KTVL reports that 90% of all wildfires are caused by humans, i.e., leaving campfires unattended, discarding burning cigarettes, lightning, and arson, which is a not-too-often discussed problem. Also, preventative measures like controlled burns and clearing underbrush could help prevent fires or make them easier to control when they do start but are not taken as often as they can be.
Fires Are Expensive
Since 1985, the Dept. of the Interior and the US Forest Service have spent on average $1.1 billion per year on fighting wildfires – that’s a total of $41 billion, or approximately $15,500 for every fire.
The real cost, however, is substantially higher, as this number does not include things such as uninsured property, lost business, or lost animal life. Wildfires still have not yet ramped up in the US, but in Canada they have already burned nearly double the acreage usually burned in an average season.
Expecting The Unexpected
How should one react when wildfires rage out of control? Those living downwind from one should pay attention to the Air Quality Index and based on that immediately take whatever safety measures are necessary.
But even more important than the AQI is real life. “If you can see or smell smoke, know that you’re being exposed,” says City Prepping. “Face masks are helpful, and N-95 masks in particular. It should be fitted close to your face as it will help protect you from smoke particles, which are the most dangerous element of smoke.”
To whatever extent possible stay indoors, keep windows closed, and avoid outdoor activities. Some hardware stores sell filters that are specifically geared to filter out smoke particles and smog.
Many millions of Americans were following news about the fires very closely, either because they were directly impacted, were afraid they would be, or had relatives or friends in harm’s way. And one lesson they may take with them is that the weather sometimes deviates very sharply from historical patterns. For example, the numerous fire records being shattered so early in the season may be history now -- or they could be a sign of an ongoing wildfire crisis this season that has just begun.
That’s an unnerving thought, because at its peak, New York City had the worst air quality in the world. Even when it had improved it was still ranked at the same level as Bangladesh – the most polluted city in the world.
City Prepping suggests people reach out and check on their neighbors, especially the elderly or more vulnerable. “When possible, share with them N-95 masks or an air purifier. If they are running low on masks they may also be running low on food, which is why we stress the necessity of building a year’s food supply.”
Even with sophisticated computer models, the weather remains very difficult to forecast. For example, just a few weeks ago, one private weather service predicted an exceptionally hot summer because of a phenomenon called a super el nino that has developed and is expected to control our weather. But since then it has drastically changed its earlier forecast and now warns this summer may be the coldest on record.
So many of the things we depend upon have become very precarious and unpredictable, and no one knows how events will play out. Preparing for every eventuality is surely the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones.
Sources: airnow.gov; cityprepping.org; edf.org; epa.org; weather.gov